Pulp Appeal: Tales from the Crypt

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Eeee hee hee hee hee hee hee heeeeeeee!

A couple years ago there was a rumor (which turned out to be correct) M. Night Shyamalan was resurrecting one of my favorite television series of all time: Tales from the Crypt. I was simultaneously ecstatic and revolted, as anyone who has followed Shyamalan’s career[1] has a right to be. I have a reputation among my friends and family of poo-pooing remakes and unnecessary sequels, but this is a series I would love to see revived, provided it is done correctly.

Before the era of the Comics Code Authority, comic books went through a growth period in which they embraced violence, blood, and horror, but no publisher pushed the boundaries of acceptability in four-colors further than William Gaines of EC Comics. After his father died, Bill took over and turned it from a fairly standard publishing house, Entertaining Comics, into the horror and shock masterpiece that marked EC Comics’ heyday.

Although writers and producers had been bandying about the idea of a Tales from the Crypt movie for years, the box office flops Twilight Zone: The Movie and Creepshow made that path untenable at best, but HBO was willing to get onboard with a tv series simply because of how much support the idea was getting from big name Hollywood types like Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, and Walter Hill. Zemeckis was a hot commodity at the time after the huge success of Back to the Future, Donner was the hitmaker behind Superman and The Goonies, and Walter Hill was the man behind the stylistic wonder The Warriors. With those three pushing for the series, it’s no surprise HBO backed the weird property.

Most of the show’s episodes come not from the title comic, Tales from the Crypt, but rather from The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, and The Haunt of Fear. The stories Gaines published were mostly those of bloody morality tales where deviants and murderers get their comeuppances in gory and frequently ironic fashions, and the tv series followed suit. Although the comics became the focus of Congressional hearings over decency laws, and eventually died out because of the strict censorship protocols of the Comics Code Authority, HBO didn’t have to fight those battles. As an independent cable network, they could show blood, violence, and nudity, most of which would be considered tame by modern standards[2].

Like a lot of pulp of the later era, there are clear morals in play in the Tales series. While earlier pulp magazines and stories of the 1930s and 40s played more in the gray areas, with heroic criminals and selfish heroes, the EC Comics stories were definitely starker in their divides. The villains were clear and they almost universally met tragic endings. 

RCO011_1464944405The tv series follows this formula, which is entertaining, if at times predictable and staid. That said, there are few duds in the long-running anthology, and the series was popular enough they even made a kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon spin-off, Tales from the Cryptkeeper[3].

My all time favorite episode has to be the third episode of season 1, “”Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone.” Joe Pantoliano plays a daredevil who thinks he has nine lives after a medical experiment, only to realize too late into his latest death-defying stunt that he’s miscounted and is about to be buried alive. It’s simple, not overly moralistic, and has one of my favorite character actors in a lead role.

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I also really like the episode from season 2 called “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” starring Bobcat Goldthwait (what has he been up to recently?) and Don Rickles. I think it’s partly because Rickles is one of my favorite stand-up comics, engaging as he does in insult comedy against his own audience. Anyone who knows me probably understands why. The reveal of who the ventriloquist’s dummy is remains one of the stupidest reveals in tv history, right up there with Newhart’s “it was all a dream” nonsense, and yet I love it because it’s so insanely campy.

Something I didn’t know until research for writing this article was the censored syndicated versions of the show that aired on Fox in the mid 1990s weren’t just cut, but rather used secondary shots. The producers had apparently planned for the show to reach larger audiences and double-shot most episodes so they could be recut for broadcast without being completely neutered by dialogue overdubs or pixelation.

Since the cancellation of the in-production revival this past summer[4], it appears our best hope for anthology television remains in the science fiction realm. While The Twilight Zone managed to split across scifi, fantasy, and horror genres in relatively equal measure, modern productions are having a harder time of it. Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror has been a hit, with a new season dropping sometime soon. Amazon is hitting back at Netflix with a science-fiction anthology series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, based on the work of one of the best science fiction authors of the mid-to-late 20th Century.

There is certainly room for a straight-up horror anthology series, something the world has been missing for over a decade. The last attempt[5] at a tv show was Showtime’s Masters of Horror, which had some really fantastic episodes, but lacked the longevity of Tales from the Crypt. There have been movies like V/H/S attempting to fill the void, but every one I’ve seen has been a pale imitation at best. While I was trepidatious and cautiously optimistic about a Shyamalan-helmed reboot of Tales from the Crypt, not having anything at all in the works is even more disheartening. I guess I’ll have to find my joy in Black Mirror and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. I just wish HBO would at least find a way to put Tales from the Crypt up on HBOGO.


[1] He has some made some of my favorite films, like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Split, and some catastrophic duds, like The Last Airbender, AfterEarth, and The Happening.

[2] Heck, even some broadcast network shows show more of the first two than Tales from the Crypt did, and while nudity is still censored outside of subscription cable services, some recent shows make Tales look positively prudish.

[3] Yup, that’s right – kid-friendly horror cartoon. Here’s the intro.

[4] Rights issues were apparently labyrinthine and no one could find an Alexandrian way of cutting that Gordian Knot.

[5] I am aware of Amazon’s Lore, but haven’t yet had the chance to watch it. Reviews have been mixed, so I’m in no rush, but maybe over winter break I’ll give it a go.

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One Response to Pulp Appeal: Tales from the Crypt

  1. Reblogged this on Mangled Latin and commented:

    Ah, Tales from the Crypt, my favorite HBO show that is nowhere to be found (legally) to stream on the internet.

    Like

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